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The Crucial Trump VP Decision Is Now Front and Center

The number two spot on the GOP presidential ticket is highly coveted – and for good reason.

If you were paying attention to the Trump trial in New York last week, you likely noticed that Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) appeared in support of the 45th president, a sign of the GOP closing ranks around its presumptive nominee. But even more visible was a parade of vanquished Republican presidential candidates standing behind Trump as he spoke before and after the day’s proceedings. This brought fresh attention to what had been one of the most overlooked elements of the 2024 presidential election: Donald Trump’s selection of a running mate. Whether it will be any of those who showed the flag this week in Manhattan – J D Vance, Byron Donalds, or Doug Burgum – or former rivals Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, or Marco Rubio, or someone not even in the current conversation, the time is fast approaching for what could arguably be the most pivotal decision of Trump’s third and presumably final presidential campaign.

On the Democratic side, incumbent VP Kamala Harris is locked in, untouchable as a woman of color who is a drag on an already weak ticket but also a known quantity who has likely already been factored into one’s outlook on the present administration. The specter of Ms. Harris rising to the presidency in relief of a president who would be 86 years old by the time his second administration was to conclude is a frightening thought even to many Democrats. But when a candidate seeking the presidency can only serve one term, as is the case with both Trump and Biden in this unique rematch of presidents, and the second spot is open on the challenger’s ticket, the person chosen to fill that vacancy will immediately be anointed as the presumed frontrunner in 2028 – especially if Trump wins, but likely even if he does not. Serving as Trump’s lieutenant is certain to elevate the profile of any of the several names floated as possibilities for the number-two spot.

At the same time, there’s a danger that something could go awry in Trump’s best-laid plans. If he is defeated, the VP nominee could well be blamed or tarnished. They could be targeted with the same ferocity as Trump. But with 45 looking strong in the polls right now and confident enough of his chances to quickly accept a debate challenge from 46, you can bet any of the vice-presidential hopefuls would gladly accept the risk in return for the potential reward.

The Trump Vice President Then and Now

In 2016, Mike Pence provided cover for Trump on the Christian right. The choice of the then-Governor of Indiana and longtime social conservative for VP solidified Trump’s wavering support among skeptical Republicans. In retrospect – notwithstanding the demise of Pence’s popularity among Trumpists following January 6 – he was the right man at the right time to balance a bombastic and theatrical presidential candidate with an unthreatening, soft-spoken man of faith. But that was then, and this is now. This time, Trump would be gone from the Oval Office after another four years, and thus should not feel nearly as threatened by a strong number two as he might have eight years ago. And given the immense amount of water that has passed under the dam since then, what exactly might Trump be looking for in a VP now?

New banner Memo - From the Desk of Senior Political Analyst Tim Donner 1While the usual considerations in choosing a vice president are the same, such as geographic, ideological, and gender- or age-related balance, Trump understands there is far more at stake in 2024. Will Trump’s primary consideration be the ability of his VP to carry on the MAGA movement into the future, or someone who can boost his campaign right now? We will know in a while, but in order to build the drama, he might well follow form and wait to announce his VP until just days before the Republican Convention in July.

Vice presidents, famously one heartbeat away from the most powerful position in the world, have succeeded the presidents who selected them a number of times in American history. But it has not happened since 1988, when George H W Bush won the presidency eight years after he was picked for VP by Ronald Reagan. Still, all who lived through the JFK assassination are all well aware of the stakes involved in picking the next person in line. Four US president have been assassinated, while two others – Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt – were shot but survived, and there have been seven other attempts to kill a president. That makes 13 times in American history that someone tried to change the course of history with a weapon. So yes, vice presidents matter, if only by their very presence in the constitutional order. Likewise, history has demonstrated that the visibility of the position is enviable for climbing the ladder to the top – no less than 15 US vice presidents have gone on to serve as president, including our current commander-in-chief.

At the same time, vice presidents have no formal duties other than maintaining the capacity to succeed the president, so it is typically a thankless job reduced to serving as a yes-man/woman or flack for the boss. And that goes a long way in explaining the mockery of VPs over the years. George H W Bush was famously roasted by the cartoonist Doonesbury for “putting his manhood in a blind trust.” Dan Quayle surely wishes he had never uttered the most famous misspelled word in the English language: potato(e). Biden was depicted as a lightweight, gaffe-prone political hack. Pence was called a lapdog for Trump. There have been times when a second-in-command was handed real power, most notably Dick Cheney under George W Bush, but they are few and far between.

2024 and 2028: Inexorably Intertwined

The presidential field in 2028 will be clear on both sides no matter the outcome this year, providing Trump’s VP choice the certainty of not having to challenge a sitting president in four years. Every candidate reportedly in the running for VP and dreaming of their eventual shot at the big prize brings various levels of promise and peril. In a world currently centered around racial identity, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) would provide diversity and a soft touch to balance Trump’s heavy hand, but he is not someone to fire up an audience. Picking Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) would reunite allies-turned-rivals and accentuate the force and vigor of Trump’s campaign, but the two have said some things about each other that will be hard to rectify. The same goes for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who would reinforce Trump’s growing strength among Hispanics, but he also embarrassed and devalued himself by trying to out-Trump Trump in the 2016 primary.

Nikki Haley, the last woman standing against Trump in this year’s primary, would represent a direct appeal to suburban women offended by Trump’s personality and theoretically unite disparate elements of the party, but she might also alienate the MAGA crowd, especially since she has yet to endorse Trump. And it’s not clear she would even accept such an offer. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sen. J D Vance (R-OH) and Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND), both of whom appear to have entered Trump’s circle of trust, would effectively reinforce Trump’s appeal in the heartland, but they are also white men who would do little to balance the ticket.

It was once said of the imperious controlling owner of the New York Yankees, the late George Steinbrenner, that when you were a minority owner under his iron rule, you really learned the hard way just how minor a minority can be. Likewise, Trump the showman is not likely to cede any portion of center stage to a second fiddle. But no matter whom he selects, it comes down to a fundamental, binary choice between a potential nominee who will primarily magnify his most striking assets, or one who will best mitigate his most critical liabilities.

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